Packy Lee – Peaky Blinders | Interview
By Conor O’Neill • Photos: Conor Kerr (Berts Jazz Bar, Belfast)
The waiting’s over, Peaky Blinders has finally hit our screens; series three was re-run, many a couple/singleton and family sat watching hour after hour of the BBC 2 hit. CultureHUB caught up with Packy Lee, one of the originals, who talks about the Travelling community, family, acting successes, missing the Oscars, accents and his plans for the future.
Beginning with the kids’ drama at the Matt Albott Youth Club to watching a clip of himself on the big screen at the 2011 Oscars, Lee has led an eventful life. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock for the last four years, Peaky Blinders is a post WWI gangster thriller set in Birmingham. It tracks the gang and their enigmatic leader Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, with Chief Inspector Major Chester Campbell (Sam Neill), hot on the gang’s heels. Packy Lee plays Johnny Dogs, a Traveller and gang associate, and as the seasons have progressed so has his part and character.
CultureHUB finds him in great form and his enthusiasm seems to know no bounds. “Peaky Blinders is massive in so many countries it’s unbelievable. It’s the best role I’ve ever played and Johnny Dogs is a great character, he’s got so much scope with the gypsy background. He’s a man of knowledge but also acts the clown and is very close to Tommy. When Cillian and myself started doing this nearly six years ago I said ‘wouldn’t it be great if this goes on and continues to grow’ and now it’s happened it’s just brilliant.”
Those familiar with the show and Lee’s character will undoubtedly recognise his accent, Packy tells how it came about: “I was doing King of The Travellers at the time and that accent is a proper Traveller accent. It was mainly creator and screenwriter, Steven Knight who wanted something different”, Packy breaks into proper Traveller tongue.then continues: “ I gave them that and they loved it, but they wanted something with more colour. They said, ‘can you do a bit of Cork with Liverpool, bit of Belfast with Dublin, just throw it into a bucket and make it different from what we’re doing’, I gave it a go and they loved it.” Lee, with Traveller blood in his veins goes on: “It’s based on Rocca or Rokka, Traveller language, there are different tones and words, it’s hundreds of years old.”
With plaudits coming from Snoop Dogg, Brad Pitt, the late David Bowie, the Kardashians and Jose Mourinho all fans, what does Packy think of such names knowing his work? “That’s all ok and well and I really respect the fan-base we have, but it’s what my family and friends back home and friends who have been in this business with me for a long time, like Ciaran Nolan and Gerard Jordan,, the approval of them and my wife and family is all I really need.” As for being star-struck on first meeting Cillian Murphy, there was no problem there: “Gerard and myself were doing something for the National Theatre back when I was 17 and Cillian came along to watch; we just hit it off. I knew him before Peaky Blinders and know him better now. He’s a really private family man and I respect that. Sometimes when we’re on set I think ‘he’s been in Batman’ but he never talks about it. I just think to myself ‘I live in a weird world’.”
Peaky Blinders has everything from the gangsters to the aftermath of the First World War, including the Suffragette movement, Russian connections, Winston Churchill… Culture Hub tries for a little insider info on season four: “Well I can’t give too much away, but of course there’s new characters, you wouldn’t believe the people trying to get a part now. If I was to audition now I don’t think I would have the same confidence or belief as the first time, the show has just got so big. This time I’m delighted to be sharing the screen with newcomers Adrien Brody (Oscar winner of 2002’s The Pianist) Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) and Charlie Murphy (RTE star of Love/Hate and winner of the Ireland Film and Television Award for Best Actress in 2013 for Happy Valley). Season Four again sees a new director at the helm, Packy explains: “David Caffery, or ‘Caffo’ as all the cast call him. He’s from Dublin and it’s fantastic to work with him.”
Lee famously missed the 2011 Oscars where The Shore, in which he co-starred, picked up an academy award, but due to theatre commitments, Packy watched it at his home in West Belfast. “I was sitting in the living room when the clip came on, and then we won and they played the clip again. I was in it, only for three or four seconds, but it was great. All those prestigious people at the biggest award ceremony of the year! It was brilliant, not just for me but for Terry George, the fantastic cast and the Northern Ireland film industry.”
With a wife and three children under 10-years-old how does he manage both physically and emotionally? “I’m providing for three wee mouths now, I’m not just doing this for fun. If it wasn’t this industry I’d be back cooking in the morning. If this has taught me anything, it has driven me to show my kids that everything is possible.”
With so much achieved is there anything more to aspire to? “I always wanted to see my name in lights in the West End and wanted to work with Jimmy Nesbitt and Conleth Hill’ – all boxes ticked. I suppose I still would love to work with Joe Pesci and Robert de Niro. Next up is a collaboration with Ciaran Nolan and Gerard Jordan (interviewed and reviewed by CultureHUB last year) and Lalor Roddy, a great actor with too many awards to mention. We’re doing something; it’s a bit more TV than theatre but it’s going to be great. Ciaran and Gerard are busy with their Christmas play The Terrible Tragedy of the Twinbrook Turkey, but that’s in the pipeline.”
Packy’s just finished shooting Caramel Winters’ feature film Float Like A Butterfly co-starring Lalor Roddy. Lee continues: “It was fantastic. It’s going to the festivals and it’s well backed. Going by the performances we gave and the story, we’re in for a nice surprise. Well, that’s what we’re hoping. It’s the story of a Travelling family in the 70s and their quest for a normal life.” Another Traveller role, isn’t Lee afraid of being typecast? “I’ve been offered three movies in the last 48 hours and not one of them is a Traveller. I’m very happy with what I’m doing and don’t care if I’m typecast, people have said that since I was 14 and I’m 36 now and doing well.”
So there it is, Packy Lee, Whiterock kid playing a blinder and future secure.
ISSUE 12 (PRINT EDITION) IS OUT NOW. PLEASE SEE THE E-ZINE VERSION BELOW.